By Skye Jalal
In conversation with Sam Adams at the AMAM last Thursday, designer Norman Teague described an incident at a recent exhibition. Upon seeing an empty chair of his, a small child took it upon themself to sit upon it. Teague described the horror of the parents and curators as they noticed the offense with a chuckle to the audience, saying, “It’s a chair! You’re supposed to sit in it!”
He then continued, suggesting that all museums should buy two of his chairs: one to display, and one for visitors to sit on. My friend Max, sitting next to me, mentioned how that comment made him sad. Something about it made clear how strange the museum space is, how an empty chair is an invitation to sit down in almost every situation — that is except for when it’s covered in plastic or in a museum.
Teague’s work "Africana Rocking Chair” is part of a greater exhibition at the Allen entitled Like a Good Armchair, which unsurprisingly explores the Allen’s modern art collection through images of chairs. The exhibition begins with a section entitled, “Wartime Anxieties,” comprising works from the early to mid 20th centuries. It seems counterintuitive for an exhibition on chairs to commence with war images, many of which actually have a pretty loose relationship to physical chairs. However, this introductory section serves as an invitation to think of the symbol of the chair, as I think it is defined in the exhibit as a whole — as a discussion of ability and rest in artwork.
The first two images of the “Wartime Anxieties” section both feature portraits of reclined female figures. The works are presented as a pair, one hanging directly above the other and they mirror each other- with figures lying on their left sides, right arms outstretched overhead and outward. The uppermost work is an oil painting by Giorgio de Chirico, and below it is a black and white photograph captured by André Kertész. Visually similar, they both speak to ability from a wartime perspective.
There’s an emptiness that dominates the Chiroco painting. The space that the figure inhabits appears as if built to host multitudes — yet the painted statue figure lies there alone. A high sun casts dramatic shadows down upon the painted sculpture, emphasizing the contrast of the work of the whole, between light and dark, and the statue and its empty surroundings. The only other sign of life is a train intercepting through the distant background, invoking a post-industrial discomfort.
The Kertész is more lively. Hungarian dancer Magda Förster lies playfully upon a couch in a contorted position, with an image of an armless female figure framed on the wall to her left, and an armless female bust to her right.
What do these works have to do with chairs? In The Aesthetics of Human Disqualification, Tobin Siebers discusses how WW1 was one of the first modern events to majorly bring disability into American consciousness. The war was a mass disabling event, and images of soldiers left amputated or otherwise wounded by it were circulated widely in the zeitgeist. These images along with artwork by disabled soldiers made disability much more visible, and served as an important counterweight to the idealized, masculinized image of the soldier body that had been previously revered.
Siebers puts this discussion of WW1 in context of “disability aesthetics.” According to Siebers, disability aesthetics is that which “refuses to recognize the representation of the healthy body–and its definition of harmony, integrity, and beauty— as the sole determination of the aesthetic.” Under disability aesthetics, disability has never been absent from the art-historical record, it just goes unrecognized. For example, classical armless busts such as depicted in the Kertész image, are cited by Siebers as being of the disabled aesthetic. The Kertész photograph gains depth and beauty from the disabled bodies within it, yet they are not explicitly acknowledged as disabled. This usage of the disabled body without acknowledgement, is what allows the aesthetic to be revered in art, while disabled people in life are actively persecuted.
It’s really important to say that I am not disabled and can’t speak for that experience, but I do think that Siebers’ framework is an interesting one to consider this exhibit through- in thinking of how museums utilize the aesthetics of marginalized bodies, and then deny those bodies access to them. Having these artworks in an exhibition about chairs, is an interesting discussion of how museums will display images of disability in rooms where those same bodies cannot even sit down in.
The scope of the exhibit expands past disability, into discussions of artistic appropriations of other marginalized bodies, and the space in museums that is left behind for them: black bodies, brown bodies, trans bodies, female bodies. The notion of chairs in the exhibit was, to me, a discussion of whose images are up on the walls of museums, whose images are acknowledged as being there, and who is allowed to sit comfortably in front of them.